A Long, Hard Look (Chapter 50)

It’ll make more sense if you start with Chapter 1

They didn’t call me a cab, but they didn’t shove me down on the pavement either. I did the former for myself and skipped the latter.

I could have walked. It was a beautiful day. Warm, enough breeze to make the warm comforting instead of oppressive. Sky was blue enough, considering the size of the city and the buildings in it.

I’d had enough of the Mills/Mulligan/Breville/whatever family. There was one person I knew I could talk to without explaining or arguing or thinking too hard. Though I didn’t have anything urgent to say, my need to be with someone unoppressive was reason enough for the cab.

The door of the shop was open, sign included, and Marinette was smiling behind the counter when I walked in.

“This is a pleasure. You’re upright and sober.” I think she meant it as a joke but I had so much on my mind I missed my opportunity.

“Too soon?” Now she looked all earnest and serious and apologetic.

“Nah. Sorry. Lot on my mind, none of it mine. I just wanted to go somewhere, and this seemed like a somewhere I could go.”

That got me the brightest smile I’d seen in weeks. “Always. Look, I don’t have any illusions about us overcoming our age difference and being more than friends. Neither of us needs the mess right now. But we can do that, right? Be friends?”

I wanted that very much. I still do.

“If you stop telling old guy jokes, it just might work.”

She laughed harder than it deserved. She looked relieved, which is what I felt. I just wanted to get past the awkwardness of our changing relationship and get on with whatever this friendship was going to feel like.

“Deal. And you don’t give me too hard a time for being immature.”

“Immature is fine with me. I still have plenty.”

I stepped back to let a mother and her little boy pay for some milk and orange juice. Got me thinking about family. My lack of, other folks’ surfeit of, and the general madness blood relations inspired.

“You have family? Brothers, sisters?” I probably should have introduced the subject in some roundabout manner, but I’d gotten in the habit of blurting around Marinette and figured I’d run with it until it got me in trouble. Got me in trouble again, I mean.

She leaned back and half-sat on the low shelving unit behind her. “Is that what’s got you thinking, family?”

“Yup. Not mine. I don’t have any, not any more.”

She wasn’t smiling anymore. This is why we introduce delicate subjects like family in a circuitous roundabout manner, kids. That way people who find the topic especially uncomfortable can head you off at the pass. I felt bad for making her uncomfortable. “I’m sorry. I should mind my own business.”

She leaned forward, off the shelf, and put her hands on the counter, backwards like she used to, elbows locked, fingers down on her side of the counter.

“Don’t worry about it. It’s not a big deal, it just makes people uncomfortable. I had a brother. He’s dead. Older than me.”

“I’m sorry.”

She whispered, rough and hard and not to me. “I miss him.”

She wasn’t seeing me. I waited until she came back from wherever she’d gone. “I never had brothers or sisters, that I know of. Sometimes I wish I had. Other times –” Probably impolitic to tell someone who was still grieving that she might be lucky not to have family coming apart at the seams around her.

If she noticed it didn’t bother her. “You don’t know what you’re missing. Sometimes I wished I had a sister to share my secrets with, but he wasn’t like most men. I mean, he had a healthy interest in girls, but he thought like one. He understood why silly things teenage girls worry about were important.”

She was enjoying talking about him. I wanted her to continue enjoying it. “How old were you?” I didn’t want to say “when he died” but it’s hard to pretend you mean something else.

“When he died? Twenty. Just old enough not to kill myself, but not old enough not to get totally messed up over it. Thus the events leading to my being dumped in this place by family. Which goes to show that sometimes you’re right about family.”

As long as she was smiling as she talked I felt safe keeping it up. I felt safe listening. “This place hasn’t been bad for you, has it?”

“No, you’re right. Did me a favor, abandoning us together, my store and me.”

“There you go. From adversity, er, something.”

That got a more genuine laugh. “From adversity comes me running, pal. I don’t think I have to suffer to grow.”

“Maybe not. But growing is the best reaction to suffering.”

“For yourself, sure. But if you see someone else suffering, don’t ask them to grow. That’s their choice. Just give ’em a hug, give them comfort and love. They’ll grow, or not.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I was really starting to enjoy the sound of her laugh. “Not you. But man, when I was a kid, all anyone wanted me to do was learn from it when I got hurt and all I ever wanted was a hug.”

“Hugs are good. Most of us don’t get enough hugs. You’d think family would be a good source of your daily requirement for hugs. Families I see, I don’t want hugs from.” Especially a certain family.

She was having fun with the idea. “We’ll start a club. ‘Hugs for People Who Don’t Get Them at Home’ or something like that.”

“I’ll sign up for that. Sometimes I think four-year-olds make more sense than grown-ups do.”

At first I thought she was confused about that. Then I realized she wasn’t looking at me, she was looking over my shoulder.

“Is that one of your clients? I’ve seen her going around your corner a dozen times the past week, which is, I don’t think coincidentally, when you started unravelling.”

I missed most of her explanation. She was partly right. Client, not so much. But source of unravelling, check.

Crossing the intersection diagonally from the corner east of Marinette’s store over to my block, Gertrude was lucky there was no traffic because I don’t think she even looked before she bolted into the street.

Read Chapter 51

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